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 V.19 No.1 | January 7 - 13, 2010 

Feature

Double Zero Fiction

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is awarded each year to an American author whose book in some way captures the spirit of American life. Early in 2009, I wondered what sort of snapshot of the U.S. one could develop by reading each of this past decade's winners. So I did. And what did America look like in the Aughts?

We were culturally complicated.

2000: Interpreter of Maladie s by Jhumpa Lahiri

This short story collection follows groups of Indian immigrants and their American children, highlighting the conflicts between generations and cultures.

Is it any good?

Not really. I think Lahiri is a vastly overrated writer. Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club is a far better exploration of this theme.

We were nostalgic for simpler times.

2001: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

Comic books, World War II and a Golem. This sweeping novel follows two Jewish comic creators in the genre's golden age.

Is it any good?

Please. Chabon is a formidable talent, and his books are always funny, weird and heartbreaking.

We were nostalgic for simpler places.

2002: Empire Falls by Richard Russo

A man in a small Maine town wonders what meaning his small life has.

Is it any good?

Yes. Russo is a clever writer and the work is seemingly effortless. The plot is less intriguing than the talent behind it.

We were sexually complicated.

2003: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

The chronicle of a man's being mistaken for female, and what identity and love have got to do with it.

Is it any good?

Hell yes. A much more realized novel than his earlier The Virgin Suicides, it's a thoroughly moving tale. Also has '70s nostalgia.

We were still coming to grips with the legacy of slavery.

2004: The Known World by Edward P. Jones

Turns out, black people owned slaves, too. Class, race, religion, gender and historical fiction all in one.

Is it any good?

I loved it. Jones' omniscient narration is flawless, always a tricky feat for a work set in the distant past. The best book I've read in a long time.

We were ruminative.

2005: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

A minister uses the last night of his life to reflect on what has made him.

Is it any good?

Well. Honesty time here—this is the only book of the bunch I didn't finish. I read it on and off for several months but couldn't seal the deal. I love the writing—tender and careful—but it had a bit too much of Midwestern reserve for me. I would like to read this again someday when the things that bore me now no longer do.

We liked to revisit and reimagine great works of literature.

2006: March by Geraldine Brooks

The title refers to Mr. March, the patriarch of the family in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. The book follows March through war and back home to his, well, you know.

Is it any good?

Eh. This book suffered from being read right after The Known World. Both deal with the Civil War era, but while Jones' novel is unflinchingly honest, Brooks' book seemed like a gimmick. A bit too much winking at the camera in this one.

We were obsessed with the end of the world.

2007: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

There's some sort of apocalypse, and a man does everything he can to save his young son from the terrors that have survived.

Is it any good?

I don't know if I can say I enjoyed reading this, as I had to put it under my mattress several times in an attempt to hide from it. Brilliant, but brutal and stark, yielding little hope.

We wanted something to blow our minds.

2008: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Oscar Wao is a sci-fi obsessed, overweight geek who aspires to something more. Footnotes on the history of Santo Domingo are involved.

Is it any good?

I wanted to like this. The first third is so, so, so good, with shades of David Foster Wallace, but with more attitude. But the last third is so absurd, and so seemingly incongruous, that it renders the novel unrecommendable.

We were increasingly open to multiple perspectives.

2009: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Touted as a novel in stories, these 13 tales describe a small Maine town, all linked to the title character.

Is it any good?

Mostly. There were better books that year, though. And what is it with Maine? Come to think of it, none of these books is set in the West, except for maybe The Road. So, that doesn't say much for us.

Kevin Van Aelst kevinvanaelst.com

To sum up, we are a nation of many religions and races, but we're only recently comfortable with that (and sometimes, not so much). We are serious and sober and value hard work, but we also like comic books. This decade has been rough, so the end of the world is a concern, but at the end of the day, all we'd like to do is go home to our respective homes in rural Maine and have a slice of pie. Apple pie, of course.

 
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